Firewatch review: Lots of smoke, but no spark

It's 1989. Summer. Wyoming. Channeling your inner Kerouac, you've volunteered to spend the next few months in a small lookout tower in Shoshone National Park, watching for signs of wildfires. You've got your books. You've got your typewriter. You're alone with your thoughts.

Or, at least, you would be alone were it not for Delilah—your supervisor, holed up in her own lookout tower a few miles north. Nothing more than a voice on a walkie-talkie, to you.

Firewatch is a first-person adventure game, in theory. Which is to say you grind off the soles of your shoes walking around the backwoods of Shoshone in pursuit of various goals. The walking is mostly set-dressing, though. There are no puzzles here. No enemies. No real need for exploration. Walking is a convenient action to keep the player occupied while chatting with Delilah over the two-way radio.

A lot of chatting. You chat about everything: the weather, your home life, plans for your post-Shoshone future, that creepy guy who was (maybe) spying on you in the canyon....

The radio is your lifeline to civilization, or at least a friendly voice. You'll find a cast-off hat or a tree with claw marks and radio it in to Delilah, who typically responds with a snarky joke about your city-boy tendencies. Keeping the conversation going means holding down Shift (a decent stand-in for the physicality of holding down a walkie-talkie button) and choosing from two or three different dialogue options.

It's very Telltale-esque, which is no surprise given that multiple ex-Telltale devs worked on Firewatch.

And if you isolated any five-minute slice of Firewatch, you'd think it was brilliant. The back-and-forth between you (Henry) and Delilah is uniformly well-written, from strangers feeling each other out to uneasy friendship to us-against-the-world duo. At one point early in our relationship she teases me, saying I probably came out here to write the next great American novel. I laugh when a later scene starts with me sitting at a typewriter. There's a quiet authenticity to these characters—at least, early on.

Unfortunately Henry and Delilah can't make small talk about the weather all summer. Before long, the two are swept up in a backwoods mystery—Henry returns to his tower the first night to find his window broken, his belongings ransacked.

As far as first-act hooks go, it's a fine whodunnit. Was it the two teenagers you chastised for lighting off fireworks Did they break into your tower to get revenge Was it the aforementioned canyon man Was it the cardboard-standup mascot, Forrest Byrnes

Okay, so it probably wasn't Forrest Byrnes. Creepy name and creepy face, but he is, after all, made of cardboard.

Solving the mystery will take the whole summer (or about four hours of your time) and require you to hike all up and down Shoshone—which is, I should say, gorgeous. Golden mountains stretch into the distance, giving way to sun-dappled trees and red rocks closer to home. A fire burns on the horizon, smoke pouring into the sky with all the urgency of a lazy summer barbeque. It's one of those games you walk around with your hand hovering over F12, framing "perfect" screenshots. Or you can channel lo-fi Ansel Adams, with an in-game disposable camera you can use to capture your masterpiece.

It's empty, though. Shoshone is picturesque, and perfectly lifeless. Early on, when you see the canyon guy watching you, Delilah makes a crack about your paranoia: "I have something to tell you, Henry. This whole's outside." Meaning you should expect to encounter anything.

You don't. There's very little to Firewatch, aside from the scenery. Bits and pieces of tertiary stories found in the environment mostly lead nowhere at all, just scraps of paper and bits of junk left behind by others. Everything feels sterile, predestined. Video game-esque.

That feeling translates to the central plot. You're led by the nose from one contrivance to another, red herring atop red herring until everyone's motivations are borderline inscrutable. It is impossible to expound upon Firewatch's plot holes without spoiling all four hours of the story, but essentially we return to my "Any five minute slice of Firewatch is brilliant" conceit.

Any isolated section of Firewatch makes sense. Every beat of the story works at the time. But in looking back on it all, on reaching the end and figuring out what actually transpired, everything that came before seems like nonsense. It's completely illogical for certain people to have acted in certain ways given what we learn in the denouement.

I can't help but wonder how Firewatch would feel were it a bit less plot-driven, if it drew a bit more from neorealism or even Emily Short's game Galatea as a showcase for the intricacies of human dialogue, of small talk as art form. Your first "job" in Shoshone is, as I touched on above, to confiscate fireworks from some teenagers. It's wonderfully low-key. It's genuine. And it tells us quite a bit about Henry's mindset, his insecurities and foibles.

I'd love a game that focused on these sorts of odd jobs, that delved into the paranoia and guilt Henry feels by cutting himself off from the world without needing to manifest those ideas in an over-the-top thriller plot. But instead, Firewatch casts aside Delilah and Henry's relationship, holding it at arm's length in favor of a barely-holds-water mystery. It's a bit like trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation about philosophy and love and middle-aged crises while Scooby Doo yammers in the background.

Firewatch is beautiful. Firewatch is intriguing. But ultimately I don't think Firewatch is very good. At its best, this is a quiet game about two characters struggling with real-life insecurities. But when that's sidelined to make room for a main plot, Firewatch suffers. It's a game perfect for trailers, a game full of excellent dialogue and breathtaking moments and stunning vistas that ultimately amounts to nothing much at all.


Hayden Dingman

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